Stocking Stuffers: 13 Writing Tips From Chuck Palahniuk
*Editor's Note: This column is part of a collection of 36 total essays on the craft of writing by Chuck Palahniuk. They were submitted starting in 2005, so this essay will refer to thinks in the past and therefore be on an older timeline.
Twenty years ago, a friend and I walked around downtown Portland at Christmas. The big department stores: Meier and Frank… Fredrick and Nelson… Nordstroms… their big display windows each held a simple, pretty scene: a mannequin wearing clothes or a perfume bottle sitting in fake snow. But the windows at the J.J. Newberry’s store, damn, they were crammed with dolls and tinsel and spatulas and screwdriver sets and pillows, vacuum cleaners, plastic hangers, gerbils, silk flowers, candy – you get the point. Each of the hundreds of different objects was priced with a faded circle of red cardboard. And walking past, my friend, Laurie, took a long look and said, “Their window-dressing philosophy must be: ‘If the window doesn’t look quite right – put more in’.”
She said the perfect comment at the perfect moment, and I remember it two decades later because it made me laugh. Those other, pretty display windows… I’m sure they were stylist and tasteful, but I have no real memory of how they looked.
For this essay, my goal is to put more in. To put together a kind-of Christmas stocking of ideas, with the hope that something will be useful. Or like packing the gift boxes for readers, putting in candy and a squirrel and a book and some toys and a necklace, I’m hoping that enough variety will guarantee that something here will occur as completely asinine, but something else might be perfect.
Two years ago, when I wrote the first of these essays it was about my “egg timer method” of writing. You never saw that essay, but here’s the method: When you don’t want to write, set an egg timer for one hour (or half hour) and sit down to write until the timer rings. If you still hate writing, you’re free in an hour. But usually, by the time that alarm rings, you’ll be so involved in your work, enjoying it so much, you’ll keep going. Instead of an egg timer, you can put a load of clothes in the washer or dryer and use them to time your work. Alternating the thoughtful task of writing with the mindless work of laundry or dish washing will give you the breaks you need for new ideas and insights to occur. If you don’t know what comes next in the story… clean your toilet. Change the bed sheets. For Christ sakes, dust the computer. A better idea will come.
Your audience is smarter than you imagine. Don’t be afraid to experiment with story forms and time shifts. My personal theory is that younger readers distain most books – not because those readers are dumber than past readers, but because today’s reader is smarter. Movies have made us very sophisticated about storytelling. And your audience is much harder to shock than you can ever imagine.
Before you sit down to write a scene, mull it over in your mind and know the purpose of that scene. What earlier set-ups will this scene pay off? What will it set up for later scenes? How will this scene further your plot? As you work, drive, exercise, hold only this question in your mind. Take a few notes as you have ideas. And only when you’ve decided on the bones of the scene – then, sit and write it. Don’t go to that boring, dusty computer without something in mind. And don’t make your reader slog through a scene in which little or nothing happens.
Surprise yourself. If you can bring the story – or let it bring you – to a place that amazes you, then you can surprise your reader. The moment you can see any well-planned surprise, chances are, so will your sophisticated reader.
When you get stuck, go back and read your earlier scenes, looking for dropped characters or details that you can resurrect as “buried guns.” At the end of writing Fight Club, I had no idea what to do with the office building. But re-reading the first scene, I found the throw-away comment about mixing nitro with paraffin and how it was an iffy method for making plastic explosives. That silly aside (… paraffin has never worked for me…) made the perfect “buried gun” to resurrect at the end and save my storytelling ass.
Use writing as your excuse to throw a party each week – even if you call that party a “workshop.” Any time you can spend time among other people who value and support writing, that will balance those hours you spend alone, writing. Even if someday you sell your work, no amount of money will compensate you for your time spent alone. So, take your “paycheck” up front, make writing an excuse to be around people. When you reach the end of your life – trust me, you won’t look back and savor the moments you spent alone.
Let yourself be with Not Knowing. This bit of advice comes through a hundred famous people, through Tom Spanbauer to me and now, you. The longer you can allow a story to take shape, the better that final shape will be. Don’t rush or force the ending of a story or book. All you have to know is the next scene, or the next few scenes. You don’t have to know every moment up to the end, in fact, if you do it’ll be boring as hell to execute.
If you need more freedom around the story, draft to draft, change the character names. Characters aren’t real, and they aren’t you. By arbitrarily changing their names, you get the distance you need to really torture a character. Or worse, delete a character, if that’s what the story really needs.
There are three types of speech – I don’t know if this is TRUE, but I heard it in a seminar and it made sense. The three types are: Descriptive, Instructive, and Expressive. Descriptive: “The sun rose high…” Instructive: “Walk, don’t run…” Expressive: “Ouch!” Most fiction writers will only use one – at most, two – of these forms. So use all three. Mix them up. It’s how people talk.
Write the book you want to read.
Get author book jacket photos taken now, while you’re young. And get the negatives and copyright on those photos.
Write about the issues that really upset you. Those are the only things worth writing about. In his course, called “Dangerous Writing,” Tom Spanbauer stresses that life is too precious to spend it writing tame, conventional stories to which you have no personal attachment. There are so many things that Tom talked about but that I only half remember: the art of “manumission,” which I can’t spell, but I understood to mean the care you use in moving a reader through the moments of a story. And “sous conversation,” which I took to mean the hidden, buried message within the obvious story. Because I’m not comfortable describing topics I only half-understand, Tom’s agreed to write a book about his workshop and the ideas he teaches. The working title is “A Hole In The Heart,” and he plans to have a draft ready by June 2006, with a publishing date set in early 2007.
Another Christmas window story. Almost every morning, I eat breakfast in the same diner, and this morning a man was painting the windows with Christmas designs. Snowmen. Snowflakes. Bells. Santa Claus. He stood outside on the sidewalk, painting in the freezing cold, his breath steaming, alternating brushes and rollers with different colors of paint. Inside the diner, the customers and servers watched as he layered red and white and blue paint on the outside of the big windows. Behind him the rain changed to snow, falling sideways in the wind.
The painter’s hair was all different colors of gray, and his face was slack and wrinkled as the empty ass of his jeans. Between colors, he’d stop to drink something out of a paper cup.
Watching him from inside, eating eggs and toast, somebody said it was sad. This customer said the man was probably a failed artist. It was probably whiskey in the cup. He probably had a studio full of failed paintings and now made his living decorating cheesy restaurant and grocery store windows. Just sad, sad, sad.
This painter guy kept putting up the colors. All the white “snow,” first. Then some fields of red and green. Then some black outlines that made the color shapes into Xmas stockings and trees.
A server walked around, pouring coffee for people, and said, “That’s so neat. I wish I could do that…”
And whether we envied or pitied this guy in the cold, he kept painting. Adding details and layers of color. And I’m not sure when it happened, but at some moment he wasn’t there. The pictures themselves were so rich, they filled the windows so well, the colors so bright, that the painter had left. Whether he was a failure or a hero. He’d disappeared, gone off to wherever, and all we were seeing was his work.
For homework, ask your family and friends what you were like as a child. Better yet, ask them what they were like as children. Then, just listen.
Merry Christmas, and thank you for reading my work.
To Read All 36 Exclusive Writing Essays
by Chuck Palahniuk, Join Our Writers Workshop!
Nice to be reminded. Nice to receive succinct tips we can execute. Nice to know some of things we do, Chuck Palahniuk does too.
Good news for me. Thanks a lot!
I used to be that starving artist in #13. But without the booze or gray hair. Ive painted in the snow too and I know that feeling! But I can tell you when you are hungry and poor, finishing a job like that is thrilling. Getting that artwork done and getting paid was what that guy was really drinking!
Chuck, love your work! Thanks for sharing and brilliant and very helpful advice. #2 is very important. We often forget our audience is smart. But its hard. We are told to write for clarity. But its possible in the modern reader's world, the more obfuscation we create the better! In other words, its ok to write complicated stories and now assume your audience are smart enough to piece them together. But it might be ok to also confuse them a little as long as you as a writer know the hidden meaning. So, all good stuff!
Many many thanks Chuck,
your essay enlightened my quest!!!
I hope Tom Spanbauer will write a book about his workshop. It would be a shame do not share all those knowledge and sensitivity.
Received with grateful thanks Chuck, I'm bookmarking this page.
Great article! all points will be useful for me. The one that got me most was "Write the book you want to read" that will keep me truth to my work :)
I want that Spanbauer book. C'mon Tom, write that thing! It'll be amazing.
In a nutshell, write the book you want to read. What's missing out there? You.
I'll be putting that egg timer tip into practice. Thanks.
"Your audience is smarter than you think."
This is why I'm no longer worry about my time and POV shifts that riddle one of my novels. Thank you for your contributions to all of us.
I really enjoyed this article! Great pointers! I will be using some of them later today! I'm always looking for tips and tricks to make my editor hate me a hole lot less!!!
"Your audience is smarter than you imagine." Great pointers - thanks for the wisdom, Chuck.
There will be a Damned II. It will be called "Doomed", and will be out in September 2013. Check out Chuck's website for more info on it.
Will there be a Damned II? What will Palahnuik's next book be or when can we be looking for a new work?
Did Tom ever write the book?
"Tom’s agreed to write a book about his workshop and the ideas he teaches. The working title is “A Hole In The Heart,” and he plans to have a draft ready by June 2006, with a publishing date set in early 2007. "
Thank you, I really enjoy all the tips from this site, and especially the ones from you good sir!
This is great advice. Thank you for sharing. Tip number 12 is definitely something for me to work on.
Most excellent list. Thanks.
Thank you for the writing tips Chuck. You are one of my inspirations to my writing and getting basic tips from you has been helpful in my own writing. Keep up the fantastic work.
Thank you for tip number six. Don't be a loner. I recall I performed for a girl once. The music I played for her was excellent from my perspective. But she looked at me and asked, "So do you just sit in your room all day and practice?" The answer was yes. It made me feel sad, uninformed, and boring. My work won't survive without more parties.
Number 7 was really important for me. I tend to freak out if I haven't written anything in awhile, like the muse was just saying, " Hey. Fuck you Im out." Thanks Chuck!
Great stuff. Loved chatting with you in Miami. You've got the best fans in the world. Thank you for my Christmas stocking of writing tips.
Wow I teared up when I got to 13! I know, TMI (from me).
Thanks for the story of the painter. So true, at the end of the day; he created. For better or worse, the work remained.
Wow, really grateful for this. I wish I'd done #11 about five years ago, though.